INSS Insight No. 755, October 20, 2015
Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war allows – or perhaps even requires – Israel to reevaluate its objectives and rules of the game vis-à-vis other actors in the region, beginning with Iran and the Assad regime. Though faced with Tehran’s ambition for regional hegemony and an Iranian military presence on the border with Syria and Lebanon, Israel has so far avoided any move that might help topple Assad and thereby also uproot Iran’s hold over Syria and deny Hizbollah strategic depth in the country. Despite the high level of complexity created by Russia’s involvement in Syria – or perhaps, rather, because of it – Israel must engage in active efforts to topple Assad and hand Iran a strategic defeat in Syria, while cooperating with regional and international actors that share Israel’s interests.
Russia’s involvement in the Syria arena is a turning point amidst the complex dynamics of the Middle East in general and Syria in particular. This turning point does not necessarily focus on the fight against the Islamic State – Moscow’s ostensible reason for its current intervention in the crisis – but on the potential ramifications of the Russian move for the region and Israel. The most severe challenges Israel faces in the Syrian arena stem from Hizbollah and Iran, while the challenges represented by Assad’s regime and ISIS are less urgent. Still, the Assad regime must be seen beyond the direct threat it poses to Israel. Assad is what enables the growing presence of Iran and Hizbollah in Syria, and toppling him is a key to weakening the radical axis in the nation. The rationale of the Russian move, its strategic objective, scope, and duration are not yet sufficiently clear, but it is obvious that the move places Israel in a new reality that requires reconsideration of the ways to confront the challenge and the opportunities brought on by the new reality.